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On Liberty | Quotes


The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.

Chapter 1

Here Mill is arguing that there is only one possible limitation to personal freedom: when that freedom does harm to others. Otherwise persons should be as free as possible to explore their interests and ideas. Importantly, this limit includes when individuals do not act in their own best interests or when states or societies act to provide some good for them in the name of their own interests. Mill says this is not permissible. This quote is also the central argument of the work, and the primary principle upon which Mill builds the structure of his argument.


Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury.

Chapter 1

Mill has important caveats and exceptions to his principle about the widest possible scope of individual freedom, and this is one of them. For Mill, if persons, like children, are incapable of self-governance, then his principle of liberty should not apply to them. This is true he argues for whole groups of people, who ought to be treated like children while they obtain their maturity. This is obviously a justification for colonial and imperial relations, for which Mill personally worked as agent of the East India Company.


The disposition of mankind ... to impose their own opinions and inclinations ... on others, is ... hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power.

Chapter 1

This important quote provides the basic framework for how Mill sees the major social problem he is trying to address in On Liberty. The problem, as Mill sees it, is that social orders produce, replicate, and impose their own values and ideas onto others when they have the power to do so. This, he says, is rooted in human nature, both the positive and negative impulses, and seems universal to human social organization. Therefore to overcome this tendency, he says in Chapter 1, a rigorous defense of individual liberty, especially of freedom of thought and expression, is necessary, and he sees his book as a necessary step in this direction.


But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation.

Chapter 2

This is the basis for Mill's discussion and defense of free speech in Chapter 2: silencing speech is wrong because it harms of all of society, not just the individual or group silenced, by keeping their voice off the contemporary and historic record. More than this, Mill argues that only by allowing unorthodox opinions to thrive will a greater truth be discovered through incorporating the truth of dissent, or by refining the truth of orthodoxy in "collision" with dissent. These two possibilities, that dissent is either correct or erroneous, is the basis for Mill's argument. In either one, he says, speech should be defended.


There have been ... great individual thinkers, in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere, an intellectually active people.

Chapter 2

This quote shows how Mill views free debate and discussion as a benefit to all of society. While special individuals may be able to develop creative thought in a social atmosphere of stagnation, for the entire population to become "intellectually active," the condition of free speech is necessary.


Popular opinions ... are ... seldom or never the whole truth. They are part of the truth; ... but ... disjoined from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited.

Chapter 2

Here Mill states his views on the relation of speech to truth and politics, and he complicates his argument defending free speech in the interest of truth. Rather than absolute truth or falsehood, Mill here sees a complex interplay of ideas that can all be partially true or contain elements of the truth. Indeed, this quote, along with what comes immediately after it, is the crux of his argument in defense of free speech. Because there is no universal or absolute known truth, it is always in a process of possible refinement and improvement, that dissent and alternative ideas are necessary. Dissent itself is one of the aspects of truth. The problem is when people believe their positions are the absolute or complete truth. Even in times of revolution, when old orders have been entirely discredited, these periods more reflect the changing of the aspects of truth in the social order.


When there are persons ... who form an exception to the ... unanimity of the world ... even if the world is in the right, [the] ... dissentients have something worth hearing to say.

Chapter 2

Mill is trying to show here that dissent, even when in the wrong, should be allowed full expression. He argues that even if the world is right, they gain from the exchange and learn from the dissenters.


Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it.

Chapter 3

This quote sheds light on Mill's view of human nature and highlights his argument for diversity and individual expression. Because people are not machines, there is no one-size type of society or social order under which all will flourish. Instead, like a tree, an individual's "inward forces" should be allowed to grow naturally and lead where they will.


Not by wearing down into uniformity ... but by cultivating [all that is in themselves] ... with the limits imposed by the rights ... of others [do] human beings become a noble and beautiful object.

Chapter 3

Mill argues that uniformity and conformity tend to stifle individual advancement and achievement. With individual diversity and freedom not only do individuals benefit and flourish, but all of society benefits from their richness.


Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.

Chapter 3

Mill ties individual achievement, or genius, to collective society and the role of society. If society is closed and uniform, the special talents of individuals, their genius, cannot find full fruition.


Persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development; and can no more exist healthily in the same moral, than all ... plants can in the same physical, atmosphere.

Chapter 3

This quote highlights Mill's emphasis on freedom and diversity. Just as plants need different environmental factors to flourish, so too do people need different social and cultural factors to find their full fruition. While some conditions benefit particular types of people, others wilt in the same circumstances. This notion contributes to Mill's idea that only by allowing freedom for these different types of people can all see benefit.


In the conduct of human beings towards one another, it is necessary that general rules should ... be observed, in order that people may know what ... to expect.

Chapter 4

This quote gets at the relationship Mill establishes between the individual and society. According to Mill, while society may impose strictures and rules in order to function, a person needs the full expression of spontaneous individuality. This should be allowed as far as possible so long as no harm comes to others.


First ... the individual is not accountable to society... [as long as his actions] concern the interests of no person but himself ... Secondly, that for such actions as [injure] others, the individual is accountable.

Chapter 5

In this quote, Mill recaps the central principles of the essay, which rest on two related ideas. The first is that for matters that concern only the person, an individual should face no constraints imposed by society. If others wish to influence that person, it should be only through persuasion or perhaps avoidance. The second is that if a person harms others, then society has a right to limit that person's freedom through punishment or other means.


It is only because the institutions of this country are a mass of inconsistencies, that things find admittance, into our practice which belong to ... despotic ... government.

Chapter 5

In this section Mill applies his principles to his home country, England, and finds the current state of affairs to be problematic. Particularly troubling is the lack of guiding principles to inform government action, either positive or negative. These "inconsistencies" mean that affirmative government action, "paternalism," and punishment for moral purposes are applied in a haphazard manner. Mill hopes his book will rectify this lack of principle.


A State which dwarfs its men [to make them] ... docile instruments in its hands ... will find that with small men no great thing can ... be accomplished.

Chapter 5

This sentence concludes the book and recaps Mill's complete argument. He finds that a state that pursues order and conformity will stifle and "dwarf" the mental capacities of its people. Doing so will ultimately be counterproductive, as a diminished people cannot accomplish great things and all of society will suffer.

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